Sunday, April 29, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Father's Hands

A long time ago, the parent of a friend of mine was shot by police during the commission of a crime. He didn't die immediately (people seldom do; that's our visual media sugarcoating reality for us and for its own convenience) and my friend saw him before he died, but he was not conscious and my friend said he didn't look like himself, except for the hands.

My friend has a large family with a complicated dynamic. The father's role in it had dysfunctional elements, but even the family members least fond of him felt at the time that the crime came out of left field. It required considerable rewriting of personal history, with reshuffling of facts and interpretations of events so that different elements received different emphasis than formerly, in order for them to make sense of what happened. Some did this with greater ease than others. My friend was the one closest to the father, and has constructed his response to the event in such a way that the action was the result of a physical pathology. Other members of the family have constructed their life stories differently. The simplest description of what happened is, that the dead member became an easy scapegoat for a lot of things for a lot of people, and it is impossible for an outsider to judge how fair this is.

Me being who I am, my empathy for my friend, could not prevent my latching onto the story elements. First, the hands. Second, the unrecognizability of the person on life support. Third, the mystery of what prompted the crime. Fourth, the contradictory, simplified memories created to overlay upon the complex reality of an entire family's life in response to this single event.

Fifth: My friend travels a lot on business. Sometimes, inevitably, in the immediate wake of the event, these travels intersected the paths of someone who resembled the dead father so much as to require second or even third looks.

So I thought, what if, one time, the postmortem double kept reappearing? What if my friend started receiving communications, and became convinced that the father was not dead?

That's a thriller. That's a thriller with a lot of potential, actually, for good and ill. The father could be a hero or a villain or a victim, depending on the real reason for the crime and who that was lying in the hospital with the father's hands. It could be a straight mystery thriller, or a supernatural one, or science fiction; it wouldn't matter, as long as the storyteller didn't get so distracted by shiny McGuffins and bait-and-switch plot as to lose track of the core process of the survivors' continual need to rewrite their lives and their relationships based on events centering on this person.

As you can probably tell by the awkward, stilted way I've described the case, I'd as soon cut my hands off as write this, even after all this time. The potential for hurting my friend is too great. Even if I did everything right and the stars aligned and I got an Edgar and a major motion picture deal, if I followed the plot into a dark corner for which my friend couldn't forgive me, I'd be the loser by it.

Even now I'm really hoping I succeeded in stripping out every possible specific detail that could hack somebody off.

I had a conversation with my friend's SO that brought the subject back into the front of my mind. I trust now I can let it sink back into obscurity.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Implied Contract

So anyway, I'm not, comparatively speaking, a big TV viewer, but I am - like most of us - an experienced one. And Damon loves TV. Whereas my preferred narrative format is text, his is video - we meet in the middle on games. He'll keep watching shows long after I've given up on them, for the same reason I'm more likely to finish a book that doesn't reward me in the first chapter than he is. He's willing to give the shows time to develop and prove themselves, and I'm more cynical about the whole TV production process. I think that the way TV shows are created, produced, marketed, and maintained actively discourages the creation of a satisfactory viewing experience, and that the people who call the shots are the people who least understand how the audience satisfaction process works.

I'm a little behind the curve talking about this, because it's now been a week since my thinking about it was prompted by viewing the season finale of Ringer. This was a show with a spectacularly improbable premise, involving a woman (Bridget) trying to escape from a mob hit by impersonating her twin sister (Siobhan), who has faked her own death in order to set Bridget up to be killed by the unknown person trying to kill Siobhan. After that it gets complicated.

There's all kinds of flaws in this show, and Damon and I were not shy about discussing them with each other as they happened, but I didn't get bored with it for an entire season and sitting on the couch with your husband picking TV shows apart is an important source of pair-bonding in the modern American marriage, so there you go. But I sat down to the finale fully expecting to get up resolved not to watch again if it's renewed for a second season, because experience has taught me that a show like this will try to make you come back by ending with a cliffhanger.

I hate cliffhangers.

But Ringer did it right. Every single major hook had a payoff, every big question posed was answered, and the two central characters had resolved the situations that had most preoccupied them throughout the series. Which left them face-to-face with the consequences of the (sometimes monumentally stupid) decisions they'd made during the course of the show, in "What now?" mode. One secondary character had even undergone some major personal growth that didn't get washed out at the last minute! If the show doesn't come back, viewers can feel satisfied. If it does, the hole each sister has dug for herself is sufficiently deep as to offer plenty of scope for new plots, dilemmas, and really bad decision-making. I still don't trust them not to lose me - but if they renew it, I'll watch it. At least for awhile.

As we discussed this miracle of modern TV production afterward, Damon mentioned another show, called The Killing, which was drawing a lot of flack that week for having the wrong kind of finale. The worst kind, in fact. I never watched it and I don't think he did, either, but apparently it's a murder mystery show, and in the season finale the audience does not find out Whodunnit.

This is particularly a kick in the head for the invested viewer because the show was based on a foreign series, which did solve the mystery in the final episode, so in addition to the usual contract with the audience a storyteller makes, the implication of a guarantee was hanging in the air - they thought they could trust the script, because they knew it had already been done right once.

The main point I'm considering here is that, as an experienced viewer, I have grown resigned to the fact that the bad finales will outnumber the good ones. It's a big part of why I don't watch TV much. When I pick up a book, the odds of my coming to the end of a story, and finding that it is the end, are pretty good. When I don't reach the end of a story with that first book, I often as not don't pick up the second in the series. When I start watching a TV series, I have every reason to expect to be jerked around, and I'm constantly watching for the bailout point which will maximize my chance of an enjoyable experience for the least investment of time and emotional capital.

I don't think the majority of the people who make the decisions governing what gets on the air understand the nature of the contract between storyteller and audience. They may not even know it exists. They certainly don't understand where the satisfaction of narrative lies.

It is the nature of real life that our suspense is never-ending. Our lives have no plots; and therefore, no resolutions. Even after the major events that, in fiction, either set up a coherent problem or resolve it - death, divorce, devastating illness, bankruptcy - there isn't any sense of completion. We have to get up and deal with the next meal, the next phone solicitor, the next epic household crisis, willy-nilly, with no narrative order. So we latch onto whatever we can that presents us gives us the satisfaction we can't draw from real life. An election. A sports championship. A story.

We want the payoff. We need it. We will care about the most ridiculous things in order to get it.

And if we do not get it, we have a legitimate grievance against the entity that offered it to us, and then denied it.

This is why I never start a story until I know how it ends.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Trickster-on-Trickster Smackdown

Jackrabbit, Raven, and Old Coyote,
Came by here and left you a note.

I scribbled that down one day in a soulsucking day job and forgot about it. The notes around it indicate that I was wondering how Coyote had become the premiere Trickster figure in modern American fantasy. He's 100% native, and that's good, but so is Raven, and he's stuck with his Old World associations with death and violence with no leavening of humor. Rabbit was supreme for a long time, manifesting as Brer Rabbit and Buggs Bunny, but I reckon just the fact that he's a prey species has acted against him. Modern Americans prefer predators. I remember Gayle Ross complaining once, on a shared school visit, of some white writer taking a Rabbit story and changing the protagonist to Coyote for no very good reason.

I think in terms of the continental US Raven is Northwestern (but he was General Houston's totem animal, and Houston's tribe of refuge was the Cherokee), Coyote Southwestern, and Rabbit hails from the Eastern Seaboard. Generally. But the tribes are all mixed up in the wake of the European invasion, anyway.

So what if they teamed up?

Against who?

The forces of law, as represented by - hmmm, there aren't very many memorable folkloric figures of law, are there?

What if they team up against other tricksters? Well, what other tricksters? Raynard the Fox, Anansi - hey, we could have two teams of three, with Rabbit playing for both teams as suited him.

What are the stakes? Is it pure farce, or is there a razorsharp satirical edge, suitable for these big movers and shakers to illustrate?

That could be epic. And complicated. A farce of trick and countertrick, bluff and double bluff, shifting allegiances, tables turning till they fly out the window. The kind of thing PJ Wodehouse used to plot on index cards tacked all around the walls of his room.

I am not clever enough to pursue this idea. I get dizzy just peering over the edge of it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Even Vegetables are Growing All the Time

Spring is very frustrating to me - perfect weather for so many things, but not for my head. I'm all right if I have a project lined up to work on, as I can write sitting down; but starting a project is right out.

I can, however, open up the hatches and let in anything and everything that happens by to add to the compost bin of my mind and rot down into something that feeds a story later. I can't grow my own peas, but I can shell farmer's market peas on the back steps and watch the birds and cats. I can't go birdwatching, but I can turn on a blue heron cam. I can't learn new things very well (fly front zippers are hard enough when I can tell up from down), but I can pace myself through established things and make tank tops and even conduct small cooking experiments. And I can't solve major mysteries, but I can work out how many queries were sent in the crack between the last back-up and the computer crash. (One. And I even know who it was to!)

Next spring, however, I need to have a project lined up. It's never too early to plan these things.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tax Day

Is your estimated income tax payment in the mail?

If not, get on it!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Tour de Supernatural Forces

I dreamed several plots last night, but now key parts of all of them have melted (shame, too; one of them was to a bestselling cult juvenile novel that was already on the shelves and had generated support literature, a movie deal, and fanfic - just what my career needs!), so I dig back into the notes folder again and find a notion dating from way back; back when I thought I'd be writing for adults. It's not exactly original, but all the more reason to sell it at a discount.

A producer discovers an unproduced script by his favorite dramatist, which includes the dramatist as a minor character. He hires as many people as he can who worked with her in her lifetime, and finds an actress who, though inexperienced and not very promising in delivery, looks enough like the dramatist to be worth working with. He refuses to change a word of the script because he admires the dramatist so much.

The actress gets better as rehearsals go forward, and the people who've worked with her before find that the resemblance soon becomes uncanny. In addition to carrying the part well, the actress's behavior begins to shift and she gets more like the dramatist in daily life - her tastes change, she gets both more observant and more autocratic, doesn't drop the adopted accent, etc. Somebody - in the notes it's a costumer - recognizes that the script is a spell, and the dramatist is possessing the actress. The key scene would be the confrontation between the protagonist who realizes this and the possessing dramatist, who has a complex and impenetrable rationalization for why this isn't a wrong thing to do.

The protagonist manages to break the spell by destroying all copies of the script. (How? Fire + hard drive crash?) The cast is far enough along that they can reconstruct it pretty well, just not well enough for it to function as a spell. The actress playing the dramatist suddenly tanks, is replaced, and goes on to moulder in Hollywood talking about losing her Big Break. Presumably the protagonist is fired if her part in the destruction of the spell is discovered.

I conceived this as a short story, but short story markets even in genre have dried up so much I don't know now where it would be peddled. It'd take a lot of padding to make a decent novel. It's natural habitat is probably movies or TV; it's a Twilight Zone sort of plot, and a knowledgeable writer could use it as a decent framework for a satire.

I of course am not knowledgeable and never had a hope in heck of pulling this one off.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Paths of Temptation

It was pure lack of will that kept me from posting a garage sale idea last Sunday. I'll endeavor not to fail that saving throw again.

Sunday is Game with People Day, but I had time in the morning and evening that I could have used to blog. It wouldn't have been hard - even not feeling like working out a new one, I still have lots of old notes I could have pulled an idea from. We had e-mail working as of Saturday afternoon and I'd solved the last problem in the last major reinstallation - my Sims2 game - by around 10:00 Sunday morning.

So the truth is, I was desperate to get back to my neighborhood of little imaginary people. Because of the age of the most recent backup, I had three households to replay to get back up to where I'd left off, with important developments pending like a wedding, a child growing to teen-ager, and some new university graduates setting up housekeeping on their own - not to mention the baby about to be born, which I promised to name after the person on the newsgroup who helped me solve that last problem.

The newsgroup also factored in. It's a place where players hang out, help each other troubleshoot, and exchange pictures and gaming war stories, very much like any other gaming social venue, except that "war stories" are more likely to involve soap opera and juvenile hijinx than tales of heroism and high adventure. (Although players of the "zombie apocalypse" challenge have gone a long way toward making an adventure game out of a domestic simulator.) Not knowing any other players of this particular game, it's a natural place for me to indulge myself in nattering on, and posting really awful pictures for which I try to make up by explaining what's going on as amusingly as possible. People who post a lot will even generate a bit of a fanbase for particular sims, and I was surprised and gratified to find that this had happened to me. I'm sure nobody else was as anxious to get back to them as I was, but several people had kindly wished me well and expressed eagerness to hear what was going on in Drama Acres. Naturally I wished to oblige them.

One poster there has even exchanged copies of some of her sims with some of mine, we having both remarked that it was a shame her raucous Subject clan couldn't have playdates with my superfertile Hawkins family. I am still working out how to incoroprate the Subjects into Drama Acres, but I recently received some photos of how the Hawkinses she decided to add look in her game, and I keep returning to them. For one thing, I never got baby pictures of my beloved Pigeon Hawkins - now grown and with a toddler of her own in Drama Acres, but still an adorable rambunctious tot in Aegeropilon's Strangetown. For another, patriarch and matriarch Goz and Kitty Hawkins will be dying soon in my game, whereas in hers they are still young, with new and interesting hairstyles. Also, I started them with four children, and Aegeropilon is starting them with only two. With a little more time to breathe and different neighbors to interact with, they can develop differently, while still being, visibly and validly, the characters I created and love. Only now they're going beyond me, which is what I most want my creations to do.

It's a good feeling. A rewarding feeling. Compared to such ego gratification, the sense of an audience that "gets" what I'm saying, and the small but instant satisfactions of being recognized, the possibility of beating my way through the jungle of traditional publishing and maybe getting paid and maybe finding my audience, eventually, seems so remote and difficult that it's hard to gear myself up for it.

And this of course is the danger posed by online culture. Why labor in isolation to perfect a craft when you can garner a niche audience with imperfect fanfiction? Why go through the whole laborious process of publication when you can toss creations out on the web and gather praise from your particular subculture?

The answer, of course, is in all the unfinished fan serials and lapsed blogs out there. The audience loses interest when you get to the hard, long, uninspired slog in the middle. Ego gratification is not enough to tide you through the crisis periods when you just don't feel like posting, and will not be waiting for you when you're ready to come back.

And no one is going to pay you enough to live on, unless you're very very clever about it.

I'm still trying to figure out whether certain submissions got made in the crack between last backup and crash, or not, and I have a new query or two to get out. So I will do those things. They're important. I'm completely discouraged about my ability to sell in this market, but it's not because I doubt the works. I do good work. The problem is to get rewarded for it.

And I can't pay off the work on the house with ego gratification.

P.S. Just for grins, here's how Goz and Kitty Hawkins look in my game right now:
Photobucket (They do have clothes, but ever since Goz retired and Pigeon moved back in to take over as Head of Household, they've basically been wandering around the house canoodling in their drawers. Actually they did a lot of that when he was working, too, but he was forced to get dressed and leave every day.)
And here's how they look in Aegerogropilon's Strangetown:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Upgrades" Suck

I just thought I'd mention that.

Three weeks after the hard drive crash, which apparently coincided with the death of the DVD head in our CD-DVD drive, we're finally almost at full functionality. Did you know that external DVD drives are "in" and internal ones "out?" But Damon says we don't have any more room for peripherals on our desk, so we mail-ordered. Which means I'm still several days away from completely reinstalling my Sims2 game; but fortunately everything else we need was either on a CD or downloadable in an .exe file.

However, ever since we restored the data from backup, we can't send e-mail. We can receive it, in one of the three different e-mail folders Outlook 2010 constructed for us even though we didn't ask it to, but no matter where or how we try to compose outgoing messages, it insists on putting them into the outbox subfolder of a different one and then tells us it can't send any of them because it can't read the data file. Which data file, it won't say. I'd think it was the restored one, given the timing, but we can read all of that stuff, and in any case outgoing e-mail shouldn't have anything to do with our archive.

Microsoft can send an automated test message using our account, so it has to be possible, but as for letting us know how it works so we can figure out where the problem is - pfft, we're just the user.

And I can't penetrate the layers of security protecting Microsoft's "customer service" personnel from contact with a customer. The websites of course only cover the most basic problems encountered by the computer illiterate, I can't e-mail them, and following the links that promise me a phone number just leads me around in a circle to someplace where I've been unsuccessful before, without a glimmer of actual contact information.

Anybody got an idea?

Or a recommendation for non-Microsoft e-mail browsers? Because I'm really disinclined to deal with them at any level. We only have the latest version of Office installed because some publishers (being hopelessly whipped into submission by our corporate masters) will only accept files in that format. Which is no picnic to translate from our perfectly-functioning WordPerfect8 program, let me tell you; but I'd rather deal with that occasionally than use Word, aka THE WORST WORD PROCESSING PROGRAM EVER MADE. But that's another rant.

I'm going to go weed now. Weeds never upgrade.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: April Fool's Day

Here's a question: Why, out of all the holidays, is there no such thing as "an April Fool's Day book?"

C'mon, it's obvious. A day devoted to practical joking, a day when hoaxing is respectable? How perfect does it get?


1) The straightforward "non-fiction" book on an imaginary subject; something that takes the premise that a particular imaginary condition is not imaginary at all, and lays out a sober argument concerning it. Like Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons.

Which, by the way, is a beautiful book, and if scholarly journals and crackpot theorists laid out for illustrations like those, they'd get a wider readership. You'd have to take care, when writing one of these, to pick a subject that is commonly acknowledged as imaginary, though; Dickinson's tone is indistinguishable from the arguments of the better class of cryptozoologists and UFO researchers, who are making serious arguments on subjects they take seriously. You don't want your April Fool's Day book to muddy the Fortean waters twenty years from now.

Or maybe you do, but I think it'd spoil the joke.

2)Non-fiction accounts of hoaxes and practical jokes. It's not hard to find adult non-fiction on topics like The Great Moon Hoax, but such things are sadly lacking for children; and it's a surprising oversight. Who enjoys a good prank more than a kid? Who is in more need of gaining the critical tools necessary to distinguish fact from fiction from lies from hoaxing? April Fool's Day would be an excellent marketing tool for selling books that entertain while exposing the ways in which our minds process and accept or reject information, and how these are exploited by people with particular agendas, from proving a theorem to selling a product.

3) Fiction about pranksters, centering around April Fool's Day in the same way that fiction about ghosts often centers around Halloween. Variations on the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Picture books about Trickster culture heroes - Coyote, Rabbit, the ubiquitous Jack, etc.

Most stories about pranks are necessarily short form or episodic, and older readers are currently addicted to plot - even TV series, which typically can't sustain them to the end, seem to feel obliged to have some overarching metaplot - but there's no reason we can't build long-form plots around a core idea of pranking.

Say you have an habitual joker who, when he gets up early on April Fool's Day to sneak out and set up some of his more elaborate pranks to go off later in the day, encounters The Other. A threatening Other, the UFOnaut or Wicked Fairy Prince who poses a threat to the cozy domestic environment within which Jack the Joker has been functioning comfortably his whole life; one who is turning Jack's jokes deadly. He can try to warn people, but it's Jack and it's April Fool's Day - nobody's going to believe him if he says water is wet! So he has to go into a solo battle of wits against this otherworldly threat, using his hoaxing and practical joking skills in deadly earnest; and incidentally getting into deeper and deeper water with his friends, family, neighbors, and authority figures, who are fed up with him and his endless silliness.

Or say you have a practical joke war going on; two teams, a couple of old men who have been pranking each other turn and turn about their whole lives and have enlisted their grandchildren (much to the dismay and disapproval of their children) in it; or playground rivals. Something happens, an accident or a third-party wrongdoing that each team blames on the other, and the jokes gradually get less funny and more serious, until somebody realizes that it's getting out of control and has to set about stopping it.

Or -

No, that's enough. Those two notions are very bare-bones and deserve to be thought about in more depth before being dismissed out of hand.